“When in his prime, Zaheer could make batsmen dance to his tunes and that alone set him apart from 99% of Indian fast bowlers. While his career is rarely celebrated, his departure left a gaping hole in India’s fast bowling battery in Tests”.
“For me, Zaheer is the Sachin Tendulkar of the Indian bowling attack”
MS Dhoni’s words on Zaheer Khan come up every time there is a discussion on the career of the underrated left-arm seamer.
In a land where you can throw a stone and spot a spinner, Zaheer’s emergence came against all odds. Indian pitches were made to instruction keeping in mind the array of slow bowlers and the weakness of non-sub-continental teams against spin. They were blown dry, rolled over until cracks appeared and left to torment batsmen against the turning ball. Then the Harbhajans and Kumbles would wreck havoc.
Expecting a seam bowler from these parched lands seemed impossible. Then came Zaheer Khan with his enviable action, the remarkable leap in his delivery stride and yorkers that other Indian seamers could only dream of bowling.
Zaheer might well have ended up his career in one of those cubicles in software companies if not for his father’s words. “Engineers to bahut saare hain tu bowler hi ban na” (There are a lot of engineers out there, you become a bowler).
There is a story around Zaheer where TA Sekhar at MRF Pace Foundation writes him a letter asking him to attend trials in Chennai. Once there, little Zak impresses the Aussie great Dennis Lillee and is inducted into the foundation.
Great fast bowlers, they say, often emerge from the streets. While neighbours, Pakistan, are masters at picking up random individuals from the street and turning them into world-class fast bowlers, India were believed to have a process. But diamonds do emerge from underneath a pile of stones and Zaheer’s story was such.
When he steamed in and landed a near-perfect yorker to Steve Waugh in the 2000 Champions Trophy, India knew this was a diamond better kept unpolished. The Australian skipper was done all ends up as he could barely get his bat down in time to beat the yorker. Ha! An Indian fast bowler beating an Australian batsman for pace. How often was that seen before the turn of the century?
Since Kapil Dev, India could barely boast of a seamer who could win matches on his own. Although Javagal Srinath was threatening on his day, he blew hot and cold quite often. Zaheer’s emergence gave a ray of hope to India’s fast bowling future. The fact that he was a left-arm seamer further stood him in good stead. At the time, India barely had left-arm fast bowlers and Zaheer would offer a completely different angle to other bowlers.
From being the nippy seamer in 2000 to become India’s bowling spearhead to donning a mentor role in his later years, Zaheer came a full circle in India colours. He matured rapidly and developed his game equally well. In the latter half of his career, Zaheer mastered the art of reverse swing. He was among the select few who could manage to hide the shine of the ball until the final point of release. As the ball got older, Zaheer got deadlier.
He would also use the crease much better and come around the wicket to attack the right-handers. The tactic was in full bloom in England when his relentless efforts helped India secure a rare away series win.
Quite injury prone, Zaheer fought to remain fit and in order to do so, cut down on his pace. However, experienced and clever as he was, the seamer found a way to overcome his lack of pace and made variations his USP. He finished as India’a fourth highest Test wicket-taker but his contributions go way beyond numbers.
He oversaw and mentored a group of young Indian seamers and stood as a guiding light at mid-off for them. In the 2011 World Cup which India won, Zaheer was exemplary. He topped the wicket-taker’s chart alongside Shahid Afridi and put in compelling performances right throughout the tournament. The 21-wicket haul helped him bury the ghosts of a disastrous World Cup final in 2003 when he sent down a poor first over to give Australia the momentum to rack up a mammoth total. Notably, he employed the knuckleball to great effect in the tournament.
“In the case of ‘Knuckle Ball’, I found out in the nets that most batsmen were not able to read it properly and were deceived but it as it comes slower off the surface. Hence, I deceived to use it in international matches,” Zaheer says.
In Tests, he managed to make an impact on all kinds of surfaces. While swing through the air wasn’t really his forte, Zaheer’s success was the fact that he could easily mix up irrespective of the format. As the ball oldened, Zaheer would start generating reverse swing or keep banging it in short, never really allowing the batsmen to dominate.
“I remember facing him in a Duleep Trophy game in Mohali. The pitch was green, the weather cold and Zaheer on top of his game. Till then I had never faced bouncers that threatened my safety, for there was always a way to get out of harm’s way. But Zaheer’s angle meant that Virender Sehwag and I had to be fairly quick to get out of the way. Zaheer’s bouncers were also very accurate in height – short enough to bounce above the shoulder but not enough to sail over the head,” Aakash Chopra once wrote on facing Zaheer.
A county stint in Worcester further sharpened Zaheer the seamer. He cut down on pace and developed the handy ability to swing the ball back into right-handers. His wrist, as was always the case, was firmly behind the ball but he managed to turn it into the direction of the stumps rather than first slip, which helped him become a world-beating bowler.
“Playing County cricket allowed me to try out different things in different conditions. By then I had started bowling with a shorter run-up and was eager to experiment with new things I had conceived and learned. In that way, playing county cricket did a lot of good to me and my bowling. I also learned to adapt to different conditions,” Zaheer says of his county stint.
He could always push in the odd quicker delivery, but Zaheer used it wisely and reserved it for special occasions. The five year period from 2007 to 2012 turned out to be one of the most successful phases of Zaheer’s career. Constant injuries pegged him back but he was a complete fast bowler, one which India always craved for.
When in his prime, Zaheer could make batsmen dance to his tunes and that alone set him apart from 99% of Indian fast bowlers. While his career is rarely celebrated, his departure left a gaping hole in India’s fast bowling battery in Tests. But then, he had groomed a whole new group and the efforts are starting to bear fruit. In his own words, “they can always call me or talk to me whenever they need any advice”. That alone reflects the impact Zaheer has had in India’s fast bowling history.